Humane Egg Production and the Dilemma of Compromise

While  many people are becoming more aware of the myriad reasons to abstain from meat, the egg question is much less explored by the mainstream. Unfortunately, egg-laying hens likely suffer the most and on the largest scale of any animals in the modern food industry. Given this fact, the news that The Humane Society of the United States  and United Egg Producers are introducing a major agreement this month for legislation seeking to set national standards for animal welfare in egg-production is no small matter.

Current Conditions

For an education in the horrendous living conditions of the vast majority of egg laying hens, I recommend the amazing work conducted by the group Mercy for Animals and the undercover investigations they have conducted beginning in 2002. Below is footage from an underground investigation of New England’s largest farm:

More than 250 million egg laying hens live in these conditions in the United States, a nearly unimaginable number. Helping to visualize this number is the website AnimalVisuals. While it’s rather difficult to fathom a number in the millions, this “Rate of Slaughter” resource offers a creative visualization of the number of animals slaughtered in real time. Although I’ve been vegan for years, I sincerely got sick to my stomach when using the “Virtual Battery Cage” animation, which is a brilliant 3-D animation from the perspective of a battery-caged hen.


A Look at the Proposed Legislation

The new agreement between the Humane Society and United Egg Producers, a trade group representing most farming operations with battery-caged hens, offers a notable move by the egg industry to introduce some level of federal legislation of welfare standards. Lifted straight from the United Egg Producers’ press release, the proposed legislation would:

  • require conventional cages (currently used by more than 90 percent of the egg industry) to be replaced, through an ample phase-in period, with new, enriched housing systems that provide each hen nearly double the amount of space they’re currently allotted. Egg producers will invest an additional $4 billion over the next decade and a half to effect this industry-wide make-over;
  • require that all egg-laying hens be provided, through the new enriched housing system, with environments that will allow hens to express natural behaviors, such as perches, nesting boxes, and scratching areas; mandate labeling on all egg cartons nationwide to inform consumers of the method used to produce the eggs, such as “eggs from caged hens,” “eggs from hens in enriched cages,” “eggs from cage-free hens,” and “eggs from free-range hens”;
  • prohibit feed- or water-withholding molting to extend the laying cycle, a practice already prohibited by the United Egg Producers Certified program adhered to by a majority of egg farmers; require standards approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association for euthanasia for egg laying hens;
  • prohibit excessive ammonia levels in henhouses; prohibit the sale of eggs and egg products nationwide that don’t meet these requirements.
One step forward?
So what to make of this step towards federal regulation of battery-caged hens? Certainly this progress still leaves a lot to be desired and some criticize the Humane Society of selling out. Rutgers law professor Gary L. Francione writes in Opposing Views argues,
…those who criticize HSUS for making such an agreement should recognize that this sort of thing is exactly what HSUS has been doing forever. It is the “Humane” Society. And “humane” is a meaningless concept in a context in which animals are chattel property. HSUS exists to make people who exploit animals feel better about exploitation. And those who claim that this is a “landmark” agreement for animals and will lead to significant welfare benefits in the near term and reduced use or abolition in the future, should recognize that promoting the notion of “compassionate” exploitation will never-can never-lead to the rejection of animal use. It will only reinforce and perpetuate that use.

I wonder what those who aren’t vegan, and weren’t aware of the state of battery-caged hens think of this debate and pending legislation?

Measuring progress for a movement is not always easy. Different standards for progress and hopes for the future muddle how different groups work to move forward. This is true for feminists. This is true for gay rights activists. This is true for animal protection activists.

As an ethical vegan, legislation like this is not an easy thing to grapple with. As an activist, I certainly commend all the work done by those at the Humane Society and at Mercy for Animals and like minded animal-protection organizations to make even this potential federal regulation a possibility.


By Jamie J. Hagen

Jamie J. Hagen lives in Brooklyn and is a Contributing Editor for Autostraddle and writer for The Line Campaign. Follow her on twitter @jamiejhagen and visit her personal website for more of her work.

5 replies on “Humane Egg Production and the Dilemma of Compromise”

Labeling of this kind is notoriously unreliable. Farm Sanctuary has a helpful page that goes into more of the problems with labeling of humane animal products.

While I abstain from eating eggs as an ethical vegan, others argue another ethical choice is the decision to only eat eggs from farms where you have personally visited the living conditions of the animals.

This is a great article by Eco-Vegan Gal
about some of the other reasons why vegans abstain from eating eggs, even if you did take the time to visit the farm and approved of the living conditions.

Great post. I really appreciate you bringing this topic up. I’m an ethical vegetarian (for both welfare and environmental reasons) – I eat eggs and dairy (for now) but I source those things very carefully. Living where I do affords me the privilege of being able to eat affordable and locally produced eggs and dairy which helps me sleep at night. That said, as someone who is a vegan, do you ever think animal product consumption is or can even be ethical? I’m really interested in this because I haven’t quite seen my way to total veganism and I wonder if I’m blind to something.

The quote from Francione is very interesting. I’m working in the academic world with people on the topic of post-humanism in relation to critical animal theory. “Compassionate exploitation” is still grounded in the objectification of sentient beings and until subjectivity is valued (or even recognized) in the animals that exploitation (however feel-good) will still continue. To tie it back to my original question about veganism, is there a way to consume animal products and value the sentience of the animals that produce those products? Is that impossible for you and if so, if I might ask, why?

To me the answer to the question regarding if there is a way to consume animals and value their sentience is a simple no. Furthermore, I don’t need to consume animals for any reason, and for many reasons (environmental, health, financial) the choice not to do so is also a positive benefit to me personally and my community at large. Any complicated moral dilemmas that come along with the choice to live as a vegan don’t apply to most people in America barring significant health challenges.

Arguments for consumption of what is labelled humane meat or dairy don’t tend to hold much water when taken from the perspective of ultimately valuing the moral sentience of raising another being for my personal dietary desire to consume a product I don’t actually need.

I can imagine a scenario in which someone cares for hens rescued from a factory farm in their backyard and then eats their eggs as being something potentially ethically supportable, but the link I posted to PocaChica’s comment outlines some of the problems for vegans with even this prospect.

I never even thought about how we got eggs until about a year and half ago when the US had it’s big egg crisis. When that happened, I was horrified by the footage that came out of so many farms and I decided that I couldn’t possibly buy another carton of caged eggs again. Thankfully, I was living in Australia where the majority of eggs on sale were free range or barn laid, and the state government was even considering banning caged eggs. They weren’t cheap but I felt like a better, more responsible consumer for buying them. I wish the US government would do more to end this treatment. This agreement is a step forward but leaves a lot to be desired.

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